They were almost as big as The Beatles (and they had a much longer career). But are we now being encouraged to forget about The Bee Gees’ stranger exploits?
This is not going to be a hatchet job. I wouldn’t do that. It’s not that I’m a superfan. But I genuinely believe that The Bee Gees wrote some good pop songs, for themselves and others, and that their distinctive delivery (Meaningless Songs in Very High Voices and I’ll return to that) assures them a place in whatever hall of fame you prefer.
That said, the brothers Gibb, who comprised the pop trio, were only human. Strike that. Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb, along with their younger brother Andy, were in the upper strata of human, i.e. seemingly out of control for the larger part of their careers.
In 1969, only two years after their first international hit, New York Mining Disaster 1941, Maurice went through the windscreen of his Rolls Royce. Rumours of over-indulgence persisted until they were confirmed by the brothers themselves. In 1991 they told Rolling Stone magazine that they had been known as ‘Potty’ (Barry), ‘Pilly’ (Robin) and ‘Pissy’ (Maurice).
Andy was due to become the fourth member of The Bee Gees, but was unable to because he died of substance abuse aged 30 in 1988. Maurice and Robin followed him to the grave in 2003 and 2012 respectively.
In 2014 a BBC documentary, The Joy of the Bee Gees, was built around an interview with sole surviving Bee Gee Barry. It alluded only briefly to sibling rivalry, drugs and Robin’s “minor breakdown.” There was an equally brief mention of the parody group The Hee Bee Gee Bees, formed by an Edinburgh Fringe company whose line-up was Angus Deayton, Michael Fenton Stevens and Phil Pope.
In 1980 the group grazed the charts in the UK and Australia with the aforementioned Meaningless Songs in Very High Voices. “I don’t think they liked it,” Pope said of the Gibbs. “I can’t think why.” Barry passed no comment. He appears to have exerted greater control over a later documentary, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, done for HBO in 2020.
This was a hagiography that glossed over every scandal, embarrassment and bad career move the Gibbs endured, despite the fact that some of these remained almost as well-known as their huge successes: 5 UK number-one singles and of course the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever (1977), a film that changed the course of pop history.
Not only were The Hee Bee Gee Bees written out of the Gibb story, so was one of the most-watched debacles in TV history: in 1997 Barry walked off Clive Anderson’s chat show and Robin and Maurice dutifully followed. Barry had become increasingly upset at Anderson’s jibes. There was gay innuendo. Anderson called Barry a “screamer” and claimed that he thought The Bee Gees were sisters. When Barry revealed that an early name for the group was Les Tossers, Anderson went too far by responding, “You’ll always be tossers to me.”
As far as the documentary was concerned, The Bee Gees’ 1978 film Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band never existed. It had not been a success and probably it hadn’t been a happy experience either. Barry in particular had long cherished movie ambitions, but for me it was the film that proved The Bee Gees couldn’t act. I wrote that their performances were “of the ‘think of something sad school.’”
But quite the most fascinating omission was another film, one that had languished in semi-obscurity for more than 50 years. It had a solitary TV screening, on BBC2 on Boxing Day, 1970, before vanishing. I never saw it and could barely remember the title. You may never have heard of it at all. But it’s about to be rediscovered. Its name is Cucumber Castle.
I am indebted to Graham McCann of the British Comedy Guide for disinterring this buried treasure earlier this year. McCann describes it as “Spinal Tap trying to shoot Spamalot.” He reveals that “it involves commercial opportunism, professional naïvety, musical differences, sibling tensions, a number of sudden misfortunes, and a great deal of chaos and confusion.” How could I resist? But also how could I see it? Needless to say, it’s hiding all over the internet.
I watched what looks like an nth-generation VHS copy via The Bee Gees Fan Club Australia on Facebook. I discovered subsequently there’s a slightly clearer version on YouTube. I say I watched it. In fact, even though it’s only an hour long, I fast-forwarded a lot. This harebrained, childish, plotless drivel is undoubtedly the worst thing a pop group has ever produced and there are a few contenders for that accolade.
The Beatles were originally to blame. Inspired by everyone from Dick Lester to Luis Buñuel (yes, really), Paul McCartney was largely responsible for Magical Mystery Tour (1967), a glorified home movie with apparently no script or direction. It makes no sense and has no ending. It’s developed a following and was restored in 2012, but nobody to my knowledge has ever called it a masterpiece.
Not to be outdone by their rivals, The Rolling Stones came up with The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus (1968) in which the band, together with other rock greats, as well as acts from Robert Fossett’s circus, and the audience are all in costume in a big top setting. It was so bad that it was shelved until 1995. It got its British TV premiere in 2004. Also on BBC2. And on Christmas Day. Make of this what you will.
There are further examples. But we’re concerned with The Bee Gees. Like Macca and others, the Gibbs had been messing around with 8mm cameras since childhood. One piece of footage seems to have been shot in 1967 on the boat that took the boys from parochial success in Australia to worldwide fame in the UK. This too is online because it was later used as part of a promo for I Can’t See Nobody, originally the B-side to New York Mining Disaster.
“This rarely-seen, sweet and playful (and homoerotic) video is Very Robin,” posts @DavidOPerson, who seems to understand the subtext. There is a blowjob joke, Robin ogles the backside of a boy leaning over the handrail and is finally chased around the deck by lots more boys. It all resembles Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks as directed by Gerald Thomas. The style of humour was to re-surface in Cucumber Castle.
The Bee Gees were snapped up and signed to Polydor by Robert Stigwood. The flashy Australian promoter made many demands of his young clients but was strangely indulgent of their whims to become filmmakers. ‘Stiggy’ and the boys all wanted to make a groovy, offbeat comic show à la Magical Mystery Tour, which would thrill the fans while baffling their parents. But for reasons we will never know, Stiggy acceded to the boys’ brainwave that this should be a sketch show set in medieval times.
The concept might still have worked if Stiggy had taken control. He had bought into the agency Associated London Scripts, which represented most of the leading comedy scriptwriters of the day, notably Johnny Speight and Galton and Simpson. Stiggy had even orchestrated a TV show for The Bee Gees and Frankie Howerd, written by G&S.
Bafflingly, however, he allowed the Gibbs (remember that Robin and Maurice were still teenagers) to write Cucumber Castle themselves. The show proves not only that the talented musicians couldn’t act, they couldn’t write either. The die was cast when the director signed was Hugh Gladwish. His only previous credit was The Ghost Goes Gear (1967). Look it up. Even at the time, it was a joke.
But Gladwish’s involvement was some time in the future. In the intervening three years of pre-production, The Bee Gees went into meltdown. Guitarist Vince Melouney left. (This is explained only in The Joy of the Bee Gees. In the later documentary Vince just disappears from the story). Then Robin left. By the time Cucumber Castle began shooting in 1969, The Bee Gees consisted of just Barry and Maurice plus drummer Colin Petersen, who was fired during the shoot. (He is conspicuously absent from the film and all the Bee Gees documentaries).
Stiggy remained supportive of his mercurial young stars. He loaned them his baronial hall, near Stanmore, Middlesex, for the shoot. Because of his connections, an astonishing array of guest stars was contracted to play cameos. But, because of the inability of all concerned, you will rarely have seen a more confused-looking cast.
“Boasting only a slightly more coherent narrative than the much-criticised Magical Mystery Tour, but far fewer inspired creative moments,” wrote Graham McCann, “Cucumber Castle must surely have struck some, even at the time, as a bewildering mess.”
The non-existent plot, mentioned earlier, consists almost entirely of the exposition. A king (Frankie Howerd) bequeaths his kingdom to his two sons (Barry and Maurice). The rest consists of random sequences. Lulu, soon to be Mrs Maurice Gibb, sings Mrs Robinson. At one point Barry and Maurice are birds in a tree watching a previously filmed concert by supergroup Blind Faith. There is every likelihood that the finished product was so incoherent that a narration had to be added. It doesn’t help much.
Cucumber Castle is heading for a restoration and cult success not because of The Bee Gees but because of Stiggy’s pulling power. You are not the only ones who will want to see previously unknown performances by much-loved performers. Prepare yourselves for Frankie Howerd’s most tedious turn, repeating “I’m dying!” ad nauseam. There is a strong possibility editors used just about all his improvisations during the hour or so he may have been contracted.
I am the greatest Spike Milligan fan, but am well aware that the comic genius was hopeless without control. Here he is reduced to repeating antediluvian gags in what must be his worst-ever performance. Then there is the involvement of none other than Vincent Price. Often in the UK at this time, the horror maestro appears to have turned up completely unaware of what was going on. He first appears in fangs then conducts a duel between the Gibb brothers mostly in long shot, presumably because nothing else would cut together.
Bear in mind while watching Cucumber Castle that what you see was intended as the pilot for a 12-part series. There was as much chance of this being commissioned as The Bee Gees making a return appearance on the Clive Anderson show.
Then again, we must always remember that there are two sides to every story. My opinion of the utter wretchedness of Cucumber Castle is not that of Bee Gees fans, who love it. “I love this!” confirms @smcrae25. “Barry & Maurice did a good job acting!” There is a wide range of comments on YouTube. @clivewilliams916 adds, “Thanks for posting. I’d rather be in 1970 anytime rather than awful Boris Johnson’s 2021.”
Even the promo for I Can’t See Nobody has its fans, @barbaracovell for one: “WONDERFUL SONG AND VIDEO” (16 likes). There is no accounting for taste and, if I have misjudged The Bee Gees’ dramatic endeavours, I hope you will let me know. But I won’t hold my breath.
Everything Barry has done in recent years implies that he’s well aware of his shortcomings. He could easily afford to make more films, but he chooses not to. Instead, now in his 70s but looking decades younger, he’s returned to what he knows best. In 2021 his solo album, Greenfields, was number one in the UK and Australia. He’s also still writing new material. And it’s not at all bad.
The Bee Gees perform World and Birdie Told Me on Once More with Felix, unseen since it was first broadcast in 1968, which is included in The Long Lost Show, playing at BFI Southbank in London on 5 August.
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